In New York City it happened nearly 700,000 times in 2011: Police stopped someone on the street. During more than half those stops, the person also was frisked. Eighty-four percent of the time it happened to people who are Latino or, like Nicholas Peart, African-American. Peart wrote about it in The New York Times:
One evening in August of 2006, I was celebrating my 18th birthday with my cousin and a friend. We were staying at my sister’s house on 96th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan and decided to walk to a nearby place and get some burgers. It was closed so we sat on benches in the median strip that runs down the middle of Broadway. We were talking, watching the night go by, enjoying the evening when suddenly, and out of nowhere, squad cars surrounded us. A policeman yelled from the window, “Get on the ground!”
I was stunned. And I was scared. Then I was on the ground — with a gun pointed at me. I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel a policeman’s hand reach into my pocket and remove my wallet. Apparently he looked through and found the ID I kept there. “Happy Birthday,” he said sarcastically. The officers questioned my cousin and friend, asked what they were doing in town, and then said goodnight and left us on the sidewalk.
Less than two years later, in the spring of 2008, N.Y.P.D. officers stopped and frisked me, again. And for no apparent reason. This time I was leaving my grandmother’s home in Flatbush, Brooklyn; a squad car passed me as I walked down East 49th Street to the bus stop. The car backed up. Three officers jumped out. Not again. The officers ordered me to stand, hands against a garage door, fished my wallet out of my pocket and looked at my ID. Then they let me go.
I was stopped again in September of 2010. This time I was just walking home from the gym. It was the same routine: I was stopped, frisked, searched, ID’d and let go.
These experiences changed the way I felt about the police. After the third incident I worried when police cars drove by; I was afraid I would be stopped and searched or that something worse would happen. I dress better if I go downtown. I don’t hang out with friends outside my neighborhood in Harlem as much as I used to. Essentially, I incorporated into my daily life the sense that I might find myself up against a wall or on the ground with an officer’s gun at my head. For a black man in his 20s like me, it’s just a fact of life in New York.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton in 1994, ruled that, at least in some circumstances, that “fact of life” is unconstitutional.
There are, in fact, at least three different stop-and-frisk programs in New York City that are the subject of lawsuits. Tuesday’s ruling involves something called the Trespass Affidavit Program (TAP), a program in the Bronx in which property managers invite police to patrol their buildings and arrest alleged trespassers.
But Judge Scheindlin ruled that the police routinely stop people without reasonable suspicion that they are trespassing:
For those of us who do not fear being stopped as we approach or leave our own homes or those of our friends and families, it is difficult to believe that residents of one of our boroughs live under such a threat. In light of the evidence presented at the hearing, however, I am compelled to conclude that this is the case.
The judge added that
…the public interest in liberty and dignity under the Fourth Amendment trumps whatever modicum of added safety might theoretically be gained from the N.Y.P.D.'s making unconstitutional trespass stops outside TAP buildings in the Bronx.
In fact, many experts say there is not even a modicum of increased safety. John Eterno, a retired New York City police captain, and a professor of criminal justice writes:
The N.Y.P.D. policy of aggressive stop and frisk in mostly minority neighborhoods is a dangerous and destructive practice that alienates minority youth and does little to fight crime. Similar policies have been tried in the past with catastrophic results.
Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler notes that in Brownsville, an inner-city neighborhood in Brooklyn, “the average young man is seized and searched five times a year.” He says this “breeds disrespect for the law” and discourages potential witnesses from cooperating with law enforcement. “The problem with stop and frisk is not only that it makes the citizens of New York less free,” Butler writes, “it also makes them less safe.”
●Read the full ruling here
● Also of interest: This excellent commentary on the ruling from Slate.